Higher rise and lower opinions: on tall buildings in Southwark

Higher rise and lower opinions: on tall buildings in Southwark

High rise buildings have become a common sight when walking through London’s streets, whether it’s the 1970s brutalist Trellick Tower looming over trains coming into Paddington, the more recent financial skyscrapers of the City that watch over the East End, or the Shard piercing the south-east London skyline.

There are currently 17 buildings in London over 150 metres high with a further 14 under construction, and there is almost incessant development of apartment tower blocks, such as along Islington’s City Road and beside the Thames in Vauxhall. How do Londoners feel about their proliferation and how have these changed over time?

In Southwark, many residents are no strangers to tall buildings. Take a bus through Camberwell, Peckham or Bermondsey, and you’ll see countless examples of high rise accommodation inhabited by local people, the product of post-war slum replacement when a making a new start in the skies was a popular architectural idea and the resulting local authority residential buildings were lauded for their space, light and modern amenities.

Patricia Downell moved into a flat in Camberwell’s Lakanal House in 1960 with her family. “It was such a great experience,’ she says. “It was newly built and the first time my parents had their own bathroom and kitchen with running water. It was luxury.” Patricia describes the sense of community in the tower at that time, despite being so high up, as one of the best things about the early years of the high rises.

Tiger Developments, which is redeveloping the 1980s-built Aylesham Centre in the heart of Peckham, say that community involvement is key to their approach. A spokesperson for the company said it was important to “continue to listen to and work with, local residents, stakeholder groups and the council to formulate future proposals for the site and work towards delivering community benefits”.

However, there is opposition to a 20-storey residential tower, which forms part of the regeneration plans. Its height conforms to the council’s Peckham and Nunhead Area Action Plan, which says “assessment of the site concluded that development of up to 20 storeys could be appropriate in this location,” and with land in short supply, looking upwards to meet demand for more homes is again soon as a solution. New York, famous for its skyscrapers, fits a population approximately the same size as London’s into an area 138 square miles smaller.

Housing is a key issue as the borough elections loom and all parties agree that London needs to build more. Labour in the borough has been eager to increase housing supply across the board. Yet some residents are unhappy with the new generation of tall buildings springing up. For a number of reasons, high-rise has fallen out of favour with them. They express concerns about wind tunnels being formed, views being spoiled and that the high cost of buying or renting the new homes will hasten unwanted gentrification.

The horror of Grenfell has exacerbated the bad public image of high-rise blacks, which goes back to the 1970s, when many of the early ones were built. Lakanal House, where Patricia Downell grew up, was itself the scene of a fire in 2009 resulting in the death of three women and three young children. Southwark later pleaded guilty to four safety failure charges.

The fire took place before Labour re-asserted its traditional dominance in 2010 following eight years out of power, during which the council was under no overall control and the Liberal Democrats took the lead in administrations formed with support from Conservative councillors. Even so, opposition politicians in Labour-dominated Southwark are picking up on the various strands of disquiet about high rise.

“If you look at Blackfriars Road, virtually every site now has been converted into at least seven stories,” says Liberal Democrat Tim McNally, who was a senior councillor from 2006-2014 and is seeking election party in the newly-created Old Kent Road ward this year. “It can feel quite oppressive.” However, even McNally acknowledges that when space is short the argument for height can be persuasive:  “We can’t build anymore land, so if we’ve got to build upwards we must learn the lessons of Grenfell and Lakanal.”

Updated on 1 May 2018 to include more political background to the Lakanal fire. Jarod Lawley is a student journalist at City, who has also written for On London here. You can follow Jarod on Twitter.

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